Personal touch

Outgoing AD Shanks helped bring the Gael family together for two unprecedented decades

Messenger file photo Joe Shanks coaches for the Gael baseball team earlier this season.

St. Edmond has spent the better part of the last 20 years perfecting the art of winning.

The Gaels have been nothing short of an aggregate juggernaut since the turn of the century. Their athletic department has captured five state championships, earned two dozen North Central Conference titles, and qualified for state nearly 100 different times.

It’s been an impressive run to say the least, thanks to a support system that has encouraged participation over specialization, guts over glamour, and a strong family structure filled with not just talent, but support for each other. The sport hasn’t mattered. The season hasn’t mattered. The gender hasn’t mattered. Success became second nature through a culture of involvement and inclusion the school meticulously crafted.

Joe Shanks, St. Edmond’s mild-mannered athletic and activities director, has been overseeing the entire production since 1996. Sometimes behind the scenes with even-tempered words of encouragement. Sometimes with a stern or steady hand. And sometimes, like with the baseball program over the last 10 years, through his own tutelage.

The direct impact Shanks had on the rise of the basketball teams, or the football squad — or track, or cross country, or softball, or any of the other sports the Gaels happened to be flourishing in at the time — will never be tangibly measured, and thus, probably not appreciated correctly. Shanks took a chance on many coaches through the years, put them in a position to succeed, and watched the given program flourish. Shanks himself was granted that opportunity when he returned to his alma mater in 1996, and he spent the next 21 years returning that favor with pinpoint accuracy.

Of course, the kids and their families made a lasting difference in the shape of that overall picture. Shanks would never, for one second, take the lion’s share of the credit for this golden era of Gael athletics. That isn’t his style, or even his belief.

Like every athletic director at every school, we could debate the level of real influence Shanks had on the wins and championships all day long. The track record and body of work speaks for itself, but accomplished ADs almost always take a back seat to the players and coaches. And most of them, like Shanks, would say that’s the way it should be.

What goes largely unnoticed — and often lost in an culture obsessed with both results and instant gratification — is the value athletic directors offer when it comes to the big picture. They sacrifice personal time for the greater good of their schools. They make the most of teaching moments. They build not just relationships, but lifelong friendships. They embrace a seemingly-impossible workload and establish a sense of community that sustains in a way winning rarely does.

Because of that, the memories are more about conversations and connections than victories and titles.

Shanks’ tenure as St. Edmond’s athletic director officially ended last week. And on Monday, the 59-year-old St. Edmond graduate will be coaching his final regular-season baseball game for the Gaels at Rogers Park.

It will take tremendous commitment and passion to keep St. Edmond at an elite level athletically moving forward. But away from the game itself, it will take patience and perspective. In this day and age, I often wonder if the latter is even more difficult than the former.

One can only hope the Gael community works together with the same sincerity in the next 20 years as it has in the previous 20. Shanks deserves a great deal of credit and respect for his role in that.

In the days and weeks to come, Shanks will find out — through messages, cards and handshakes — that his job wasn’t thankless, after all. He didn’t become an athletic director to win at all costs. He did it because he loved his school and the people who supported it. And they, in turn, will reciprocate the love — not for the championships earned, but for the companionship given.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at